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Monday, December 4, 2023

Is the Government taking An Bord Pleanála’s name in vain?

THE fall-out in criminal terms from the recent An Bord Pleanála controversy reached a conclusion this week as former deputy chair Paul Hyde appealed against a prison sentenceimposed on him in the district court.

He had pleaded guilty to failing to declare interests, contrary to the law as it pertains to the members of the planning board. A prison sentence of two months on each of two counts had been imposed at the district court.

At Cork Circuit Court, Judge Colin Daly increased the length of sentence to three months for each count but fully suspended it. He also imposed fines totalling €6,000. 

Afterwards, Mr Hyde walked from the court a free man, his reputation battered, his former job gone, but as a free man, which wasn’t a bad result for him. While Mr Hyde might now reach for closure on the matter, the fall-out for the board from the controversy, in which he was a principal figure, continues.

The controversies that dogged the body and ultimately saw the departure of many of the senior management have elicited a response from Government.

One plank of the reform, as it is being billed, is to rename An Bord Pleanála in the forthcoming planning bill. 

This week it was reported that there is resistance to the proposed name change to An Coimisiún Pleanála, Gaeilge for the planning commission. It was necessary to use the Irish form since, as Béarla, it might be confused with the equivalent body north of the border, the Planning Appeals Commission. In this respect the name change appears to have lacked any imagination. In every respect it smacks of desperation.

Resistance to name change

Within An Bord Pleanála, resistance to the name change has been expressed to the minister by both management and staff. Their case appears to be based on the premise that the move is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The recent controversies, which involved alleged conflicts of interest,
unorthodox composition of decision boards, and alleged biases towards development, were, to a greater extent, the result of loose management.

The former chairman, Dave Walsh, was not tainted with any allegation of personal impropriety.

Nobody within the organisation had a bad word to say about him. Yet there’s no getting away from the reality that he was manning the bridge while others apparently took liberties that culminated in the various controversies and inquiries. 

So why has the minister deemed it necessary to change the name now in order to distance the body from a past that until recent years was largely exemplary?

The board came into being in 1977 to ensure that planning appeals would no longer be tainted by politics. Since then, through the exposure of the shortcomings and even incompetency of so many arms of State and regulatory infrastructure, An Bord Pleanála managed to keep its nose clean.

On the back of a few bad years, An Bord Pleanála's brand is believed by the minister to be tarnished to the point that it must be wiped. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire
On the back of a few bad years, An Bord Pleanála’s brand is believed by the minister to be tarnished to the point that it must be wiped. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Corruption in planning was uncovered. Shortcomings in various regulators were shown to be financially fatal. Political interference was a constant theme. Yet, An Bord Pleanála was never laid low. In particular, its independence was largely accepted, which in this country in particular was quite an achievement.

Now, on the back of a few bad years its brand is believed by the minister to be tarnished to the point that it must be wiped in the name of going forward to pastures new. If that is the prevailing approach to dealing with controversies what should they call RTÉ following its recent tenure in the stocks?

Perhaps there is some hope in Government that the name change may deflect from bigger issues that continue to dog the planning body. Twelve months ago, around the time Mr Walsh took early retirement, the compliment of board members making decisions was down to five. Within months, a number of individuals were seconded from the civil service to ramp up the board to 15 members. That is as it stands now and full-time posts have been advertised.

For the last year, the majority of board members are seconded civil servants. While there is every reason to believe that they take seriously their duty of independence from the Government, it might well be asked whether it is possible to completely do so. In their previous roles, doing the Government’s bidding was ingrained into the working lives of these people. And it is to there they shall return, some perhaps in the coming months.

Yet they are expected to banish any such programmed inclination as they perform independent functions at An Bord Pleanála. Is that really possible?

The board is also still grappling with a backlog of cases. Some estimates put this as high as 3,000 and it is having to deal with other matters such as appeals against the vacant site levy. With such issues continuing to impact on the functioning of the body it is no wonder that the minister wants to have a rebranding in the absence of simply getting the work done.

Meanwhile, the new planning bill, which contains details of the changes to An Bord Pleanála, has yet to be published six weeks after receiving Cabinet approval. You would hope there are no plans to rush it through the Dáil before it is properly parsed and scrutinised by all and sundry.

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